In 1993 Egyptologist John Darnell discovered in the Wadi el-Hôl near Luxor, Egypt, an alphabetic inscription similar to those at Serabit el-Khadem discussed in the accompanying article. Initially, it was thought that this inscription might be earlier than the Serabit inscriptions. If so, was the alphabet invented earlier than the Serabit inscriptions and somewhere other than Serabit, perhaps near the Wadi el-Hôl?

Although there was some early scholarly speculation that this indeed might be the case, this view has now been largely abandoned. The el-Hôl inscription is faintly carved into a limestone wall on the ancient road between Thebes and Abydos. The inscription could be read “(The) besieger עותי, ‘El’s Trickle.’”1 On the same rock face as this alphabetic inscription are some Egyptian cursive hieroglyphic inscriptions that can be dated paleographically. If the alphabetic inscription can be dated by the date of the Egyptian inscriptions, perhaps we can determine whether Serabit or el-Hôl is earlier. However questionable this dating procedure might be, this is all we have to go on. But even if the hieroglyphic inscriptions are used as a basis for dating the alphabetic inscription at el-Hôl, the latter would be slightly later than alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit. Almost all scholars, including John Darnell, now agree that the adjacent hieroglyphic inscriptions at el-Hôl date to the late Middle Kingdom (18th century B.C.E.). This would place the el-Hôl alphabetic inscription slightly later than the alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit.

The alphabetic inscription from el-Hôl represents an early and slightly deviating version from its origins at Serabit. The el-Hôl inscription exhibits features of influence from the Egyptian writing system, as well as the inscription’s Canaanite communicators. Here is an example of each:

In the vertical portion of the el-Hôl text, the “seated man” sign is used as an unpronounced determinative or classifier; this sign is not a letter, but rather tells the reader that the following word belongs to a particular category or classification [MAN]. This is a typical hieroglyphic characteristic. It is not used in any alphabetic writing system. In this respect, the el-Hôl inscription is not as “purely” alphabetic as the Serabit inscriptions.

The pictorial style of the el-Hôl letters, however, indicates that the Serabit system was communicated (probably by a Canaanite) to the Wadi el-Hôl scribe.

The letter resh, for example, (fourth letter from the top) was carved in the shape of a head with the typical Canaanite “mushroom” headdress and does not follow the model of the Egyptian hieroglyphic head. Most probably the el-Hôl alphabetic inscription was brought here by some Canaanites who used the typical Canaanite head. After all, it is “their” script.—O.G.